A second look at the campus political climate
In a recent controversial New York Times op-ed, Bucknell University senior Tom Ciccotta argued that he and his fellow conservative students “have found that we can’t bring up controversial topics without being told we are fomenting hate or invalidating someone else’s existence.” This viewpoint pulls on the popular argument that the highly liberal nature of college campuses silences conservative beliefs and stifles the intellectual discussion that enriches all students’ college experiences. I’m skeptical.
Of course, we know what Ciccotta means by a “controversial issue.” Social policies, especially those regarding marginalized groups in American society, are what many conservative students feel uncomfortable expressing their opinions on. They often believe that bolstering protections for students of color, women, LGBTQIA* students, etc. are unnecessary, and that they should not have to tailor their words and actions to accommodate these other students.
When they question these protections, they’re often shot down. Ciccotta cites this as the reason so many students invite figures like Milo Yiannopoulos to campus to deliver absurd, vacuous and inflammatory rhetoric. As they feel more and more that their concerns are ignored, they turn to any and all controversial figures as a sort of offensive catharsis to relieve their frustrations with their liberal environment. As one might expect, this often invites controversy.
When Ciccotta and some friends invited Yiannopoulos to speak at Bucknell, they “were singled out as ‘racists and fascists’” and received no support from the school’s administration. In a moment of refreshing, if half-baked, self-awareness, he compares his situation to that of his “politically correct” classmates: “I understand the irony here. Conservative students criticize the left for seeking protection from ideas they don’t agree with—for defining themselves as victims—and here I am arguing for protection for conservative and libertarian students.”
While it’s encouraging that someone on this side of the debate recognizes its apparent hypocrisy, to take this at face value is to accept a concerning false equivalence. Socially liberal protections are intended to relieve students of the oppressive forces that permeate our culture—something that right-wing college kids don’t face.
Leftist students who protest Yiannopoulos and his fellow agitators may be misguided in their tactics—you can’t try to stop someone from speaking and expect his fans to see things from your point of view—but they’re not oppressors to their conservative classmates. For conservatives to make this claim, and for liberals to call them hypocritical for making it, trivializes people who are actually marginalized by portraying them as one side of an inane partisan debate.
On a broader level, the problem lies with our definition of the political conflict on campus. It’s not a lack of discourse, but a lack of perspective; we often forget that our political rivals are competent people who have well thought-out reasons for believing what they do. Debate is lacking because no one tries to have a debate. For the most part, we dismiss our opponents’ whole philosophy because of a few highly salient social issues. Students from both ends of the political spectrum need to learn how to separate touchy social issues from economic and foreign policy. A liberal can still see the failures of Obamacare, and a conservative can still acknowledge that Trump’s trade policies are contrary to most of what they stand for.
Rather than just allowing more of the same conversation, let’s change the conversation. Stoking animosity toward inclusive language is not equivalent to expressing a political opinion. If controversial speakers who came to campuses were experts in policy areas like trade or healthcare, rather than in ridiculing 20-year-olds, we would undoubtedly see better discussions and less pushback from ideological opponents. Politics isn’t as simple as the partisan or ideological divide, and neither side profits from bickering over the Milo Yiannopoulos types of the world.